Manchester United’s Norwegian manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks on prior to the English FA Cup fifth round football match between Derby County and Manchester United at Pride Park Stadium in Derby, central England on March 5, 2020. Oli SCARFF / AFP
Manchester United made undoubted progress in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season in charge with a third-place finish in the Premier League and runs to three semi-finals in cup competitions.
But with United still languishing well behind rivals Liverpool and Manchester City in the table, the Norwegian is now under the spotlight to mount a serious challenge for the Red Devils first Premier League title since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Solskjaer’s men begin their league campaign at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday on the back of a 14-game unbeaten run in the English top-flight since the signing of Bruno Fernandes transformed their fortunes in January.
United’s midfield has been bolstered again by the arrival of the Netherlands Donny Van de Beek, but Solskjaer’s squad remains threadbare in other areas of the field.
Three victories over both City and Chelsea last season proved United can beat the Premier League’s top sides on their day, but a weary end to their campaign little over a month ago in the Europa League semi-finals to Sevilla exposed the failings of a squad lacking in depth.
Solskjaer chose against making a substitution against the Spaniards until the 87th minute with little on the bench he felt he could turn to.
Van de Beek’s arrival apart, that problem has not been solved.
After a long summer of speculation, Jadon Sancho remains at Borussia Dortmund with United refusing to meet the Germans’ 120 million euros ($140 million, £110 million) asking price, while there have been no reinforcements in defence ahead of a gruelling campaign that will see the English giants return to the Champions League among four competitions over the next eight months.
Questions also remain over whether United can ever fully bridge the gap to Liverpool and City with Solskjaer in charge compared with the world-class coaching of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
Will De Gea be dropped?
Solskjaer has made one big decision before the campaign gets started by keeping faith with Harry Maguire as club captain despite the England international being handed a 21-month suspended sentence by a Greek court, which he has appealed, for a brawl on holiday in Mykonos days after United’s Europa League exit.
Another big call awaits on Saturday on who to start in goal with Dean Henderson returning to the club after an impressive loan spell at Sheffield United and signing a new contract until 2025.
United handed David de Gea a huge new deal just a year ago to make the Spain goalkeeper the club’s highest-paid player, but an error-strewn season has put his place at risk.
At the other end of the field, United have an attacking trident that could terrorise the Premier League for years to come, even if they fail to land Sancho.
Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood combined for 63 goals last season.
At 24, Martial is the senior figure and should all three continue to improve and stay fit, United do have the firepower if fatigue does not get in the way after a tight turnaround from one season to the next.
“We have just had 15 days of vacation but it was enough to enjoy time with the family, to relax a little bit and to come focused and fresh for the new season,” said Fernandes.
“It is not about the days we had off or not. I think the most important thing now is to focus on our ambitions and the goal we want to achieve.”